Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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As Walter Sobchak would say: Say what you want about the tenets of national socialism, at least it’s an ethos. I went into this June 30 thinking the Sixers’ front office basically had two options for how this summer would ultimately go:
Running it back
We’d just seen Elton Brand and his cohorts caught underprepared too often when it came to be crunch time -- overpaying for Tobias Harris as playoff armament and/or Jimmy Butler insurance, investing a final roster spot on Greg Monroe mere days before he somehow ended up being Joel Embiid’s primary playoff backup, and over-committing to one guy in the draft and then pfffffting the rest of the night. Running it back was the path of least resistance, and given how little this team seemed to enjoy sweating the small stuff at the moment, I figured it would get done.
It didn’t. J.J. Redick was gone, and Jimmy Butler soon followed. Depending on who you believe, the latter either turned down a five-year max deal or was never offered anything close to it in the first place -- we can litigate that one another time, hopefully when more facts are out -- but regardless, once Butler’s return to Philly was evidently off the table, so was the entirety of option one. I would’ve assumed that could mean only one thing for this team: chaos, and lots of it. But the Sixers pivoted quickly, and they emerged with something still resembling a fully loaded team. Say what you want about Elton’s maneuvering so far this offseason, at least it’s a plan.
Regardless of the reasons for Jimmy leaving, the Sixers did well to essentially acknowledge his departure as fact will they still had time to do something about it. And then they did: They locked up the team’s other biggest free agent (and another key role player and fan favorite), made sure they got a legitimate player asset back for Jimmy on his way out, and used the space from the difference in salary between the two to land one of the best FAs left on the market. It’s a team with some holes and some serious potential trapdoor scenarios -- but it’s a real team, one with considerable upside, and one that feels built through consideration rather than panic.
And it’s one with an identity. The Sixers’ infatuation with size and yeah-whatevering of ball-handling guards made them a Detrickian punchline for most of last season, and not without cause. But that size is the thing that was cited by the championship-winning Raptors as making the Sixers the most difficult opponent they faced across their four playoff rounds. Now, the Sixers have essentially mushroomed-up from that already supersized team into something straight out of the Macro Zone. This will not come without its issues, but this isn’t the Pistons deluding themselves into building a team around Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith. This is a team that’s already found pretty considerable success leaning even further into the thing that made them so successful, in the hopes of becoming singular. It might not work, but it’s hard to argue that it isn’t worth a shot.
Which isn’t to say that the individual moves were inarguable. Tobias Harris at $36 million a year for five years is, on its face, pretty laughable: For a soon-to-be-27-year-old who’s never been an All-Star, never overwhelmed the box score or graded out as a particularly efficient player by advanced stats, and never been a top-three player on a true playoff contender, that’s simply too much money. But these contracts aren’t handed out in a vacuum, and with scoring, sizeable wings at a premium and Butler’s attentions focused elsewhere -- not to mention the asset cost it took to get him here -- Tobias had all the leverage in the world to force the Sixers into handing him a blank check. He’s still young-ish and improving, and should stay a complementary and low-maintenance teammate for Simmons and Embiid, even when he’s improbably making way more money than either of ‘em. Sucks to have to overpay for the same guy twice in the space of six months, but given the context, this time’s the more forgivable of the two. (And Philly did manage to shave $10 million off his potential max, at least, so golf clap for that.)
Josh Richardson coming back from Miami for Butler -- assuming this is still a thing that’s happening -- seems a much more efficient play. Richardson will be 26 shortly, and will make about as much over the next three seasons ($32.4 million) as Harris will make in ‘19-’20 alone. But while he profiles as similar to Jimmy in a lot of ways -- a tenacious, range-y defender and athletic slasher -- he’s not nearly as efficient a scorer or effective a closer, which could make fourth quarters a lot more interesting for Philly next season, particularly if Simmons remains a late-game liability. He’s both more a more capable and more willing shooter than Butler, though, which could make him a better fit around Simmons, and helps offset the loss of Redick some -- and as Kevin Pelton points out, he’s an experienced point guard defender, which will be key in a starting lineup where even at 6’6”, he’ll be easily the smallest guy on the court.
As for Al Horford: Sixers fans should mostly just be grateful that Embiid won’t have to face him on the Celtics anymore. Even apart from that, I’ve been bullish on his prospects alongside our starting big man, particularly for the regular season. His success starting alongside Aron Baynes in Boston should portend well for a frontcourt partnership with JoJo, and the two can help spell each other for long stretches (and maybe entire games/weeks) as the regular season stretches on and the dings on both start to add up. But the postseason may bring about greater challenges for essentially a two-center lineup, and Horford is already 33 and somewhat injury-prone, meaning his four-year, $97 million deal could look particularly brutal on the back end. For now, at least, $24 mil a year seems a decent price for a player of his production and versatility.
Does Tobias’ cost outweigh the potential of his production? Will the dropoff in efficiency and proficiency from Butler to Richardson be too much to eclipse in the postseason? How long will Horford definitely even be playable alongside Embiid? All fair questions to ask of Elton & Co. this offseason, and ones that may end hovering over us for much of the next few seasons in Philly. But there’s a real path to both short-term and long-term (or at least medium-term) success here, particularly in a conference where Kawhi might be heading West and Kevin Durant probably won’t be showing up for at least another season. The Sixers should enter next season as one of the favorites in the East, and though there’s not much bench to speak of beyond our rookie-contract guys and a midleveled Mike Scott, there’s still some room for depth moves to be made here.
Most importantly, the Sixers weren’t left holding the bag. They had a post-Jimmy strategy, and even if they telegraphed it a little cartoonishly again -- as the “mystery team” long rumored to be leading the bidding for Horford, which no doubt much of the rest of the league knew to be them -- they executed it quickly and coherently, and weren’t left fighting for scraps after most of the big dogs got theirs on Day One of free agency. And even though there’s now a holdup in the Butler-Richardson swap now -- one most smart people seem to believe the teams will ultimately still work through -- the miscommunication and subsequent complicating factors didn’t even involve them. For the most part, the Sixers front office played this one like, well, a professional NBA front office.
So does this mean I owe Elton & Co. something of an apology after demanding they run it back last week because I didn’t trust them to pull off anything else? I guess so. I maintain they hadn’t done a ton to deserve my faith to this point, and there’s still a lot of work to be done, but perhaps my Bar Rescue-like insistence that we keep their menu options limited for fear of what them overextending themselves in the kitchen would result in was unnecessary. The Sixers didn’t run it back, but they’re still running. On July 1, that’s about as much as I could ask for.